To Heal a Fractured Campus

From left to right: My safta’s grandmother, my safta’s mother (the only one who refused to publicly wear the Nazi-imposed Yellow star), and my safta. (Eitan Feiger)
From left to right: My safta’s grandmother, my safta’s mother (the only one who refused to publicly wear the Nazi-imposed Yellow star), and my safta. (Eitan Feiger)

Last November, I interviewed my grandmother for an oral history project — one I had been meaning to do for a long time — about her experience surviving the Holocaust.

As the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, I can affirm the reality of intergenerational trauma. Yet, as I listened to her story, I realized she was teaching me valuable, timeless lessons from which both Jewish and non-Jewish students can apply on campus. That is why I am obligated to share her story with the world – so that we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

My safta was 13 years young when her parents and most of her family were taken away from her and deported, either to be shot on their way to Bergen-Belsen or exterminated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

She was a little girl, orphaned, vulnerable, and left all alone.

She had every right to be bitter and resentful, to identify herself as a perpetual victim, and to rightfully blame the Nazis for her suffering.

But she did not.

She could never forgive nor forget the evil perpetrated by the Nazis. However, with this in mind, she had to move on with her life. The way she redeemed tragedy was not to define herself as the victim of the past, asking “Who did this to me?,” but rather by taking responsibility for the future, asking “Given these circumstances, how can I help to put this situation right?”

This was the greatest eternal lesson I have learned from my grandmother and all the Holocaust survivors I have ever met: never internalize a victim mentality. Otherwise, you will not only become consumed with hate but also enslaved to the past.

As Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once said, “To be free, you have to let go of hate.”

For my grandmother, she took that negative energy and elevated it toward a higher purpose: towards marrying my grandfather, towards raising a family, towards giving back to her community.

Her all-encompassing identity, attitude, and purpose in life has been not based on the hate of others. Rather, her identity is based on the love of her fellow Jews, of being grateful for her heritage and everything else she had.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” Eleanor Roosevelt once said. There was one thing from her that even the Nazis could never take away: her will to be proudly Jewish.

Campus Today

For my grandmother, the Hamas massacre that took place on October 7 triggered painful memories from the Holocaust. “Never again,” the lesson we learned from the six million Jews murdered in cold blood, has now become “ever again.”

The amount of toxic hate I have seen on my campus (and other universities as well) since October 7 has been both disheartening and overwhelming. From disrespectful comments on social media posts to provocative posters on campus demonizing the other side to verbal and physical harassment of students, there is a small, yet vocal minority of students who create a highly flammable atmosphere on campus.

At my university, I have witnessed students chanting the phrase “globalize the intifada,” a term which has historically been used in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not for “peaceful resistance,” but for terrorizing Jews with suicide bombings, shooting attacks, stabbings, and other means of armed violence. I have witnessed students blacklisting other students because they do not agree with their opinions. I have witnessed students rudely spamming hateful comments (which are now taken down) on my university’s social media page to take advantage of International Holocaust Remembrance Day to push a political message.

When I hear that “hate has no place on campus,” I unfortunately continue to observe the opposite.

This is also the reason why I dropped my Middle East Studies Minor. Every time I walked into the classroom, the negative energy in the room was palpable. I was walking on eggshells bringing up my Jewish identity or even mentioning the word “Israel.” Every day, I had to hide my kippa under my hat so that my classmates with different viewpoints would not identify me as Jewish and publicly shame me. In short, I did not feel welcome.

At a university, a safe space should not be a place where you are protected by those with whom you agree from those with whom you disagree. That is called groupthink.

Rather, a safe space should be a place where you make space for those who disagree with you so that each can listen to the other with respect.

Whether or not you agree with Israeli, Jewish, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, or any claims, there is no justification whatsoever to scream, silence, or slander others with whom you disagree. Right now, our universities are in need of more civility and calm for all students.

Yes, we must acknowledge that there are a significant amount of casualties on both sides of the conflict. Yes, we must acknowledge each other’s suffering. At the very least, we can all agree that every human life is sacred with equal dignity.

While we cannot control external circumstances halfway across the world from us, we can control how we respond to it. We can choose to wallow in misery and demonize the other (asking “Who did this to me?”), or we can take action to recognize each other’s suffering and elevate it to something positive (asking “Given these circumstances, how can I help to put this situation right?”).

Now, how do we do that?

Listening, Not Labeling

Opening yourself up to someone whose color, culture, class, or creed is different from yours can seem daunting. In an age of echo chambers, filtered media, and narrowcasting, we all have a tendency to tune in to that which aligns only with our own viewpoint while tuning out others.

However, it is precisely “the people not like us that make us grow.”

If one has a monopoly on the truth, then why bother listening to others? Because, as a mystical Jewish saying goes: “A full vessel cannot receive.” It is only by acquiring humility, the sense of opening ourselves up to something beyond ourselves, that we realize our own perspective is merely one finite fragment of an infinitely fractured truth.

Thus, I’ve reflected on three ideas worth sharing:

First, there is no justice for any person or people without listening to the other side.

Second, that true peace, in our relationships with others and toward ourselves, comes as a result of active listening.

And third, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “Humility is not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.”

In other words, we need to learn how to listen for the sake of learning, not labeling.

Listening to the other, who is not in my image, is the first step towards recognizing the “dignity of difference.”

The Antidote to Hate

Hate, like COVID-19, is a virus. Viruses do not distinguish between different types of people, but rather rapidly fester and grow into an infectious force that threatens us all. Historically, for example, the Nazi regime may have started with Jews, but it never ended with Jews. Nazis not only targeted Jews, but also Roma, Sinti, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and political dissidents. Hate knows no bounds.

With this in mind, I offer three practical suggestions for what each of us can do to bring more hope to our everyday lives.

First, if you wear headphones, take a moment to unplug. Whether you are a commuter on your way to work or a student walking to class, withdraw from your isolated world for five minutes. Challenge yourself to go outside your comfort zone and greet that person you always pass by with a genuine smile. Start a casual, friendly conversation and give them your full, undivided attention. Humanizing starts with acknowledging the other.

Second, enroll in an in-person or online class from a perspective you have never heard from before. For example, I am a history major; I never considered taking an environmental history course before simply because I was initially not interested. But it is precisely for this reason that I am taking the course. Now, I realize how I could see my pre-existing knowledge and interests from a new, oblique angle I would have never seen otherwise.

And third, follow news outlets and social media accounts of people with different viewpoints from your own. Just like our earbuds, we are constantly using our phones. Every time we read our favorite news outlets or open Instagram and Twitter, we are training ourselves to focus on our interests. We are quick to judge other news sources and social media accounts as not worth our time. Instead of judgment, be curious and interact with different media sources to train yourself to learn from others, not label them.

As our sages once said, “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.”

Thus, each one of us should ask ourselves: Are we taking action to further fracture our world, or heal it?

If we are to heal our fractured world, we must first recognize that each and every one of us has the power and influence to turn negative energy into positive energy, just like my grandmother did.

If she could continue to spread light after going through the darkest chapter in human history, how much more so can each and every one of us dispel the darkness of hate by becoming beacons of light in our own communities.

It all starts with one positive thought, one friendly compliment, one good deed.

It all starts with you.

The original version of this article appeared in The Ubyssey on March 12, 2024.

About the Author
Eitan Feiger is currently a 4th year History student at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He also serves as Vice President and Treasurer of UBC's Chabad Jewish Student Centre and as VP External Relations with UBC's Israel on Campus club.
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